BEST OF: Soundtracking 2012

Oh, the treacherous end-of-year best-of list.  What makes the cut, and what doesn’t, is always going to stir up controversy.  The tradition endures despite its shortcomings, the biggest of which being that it’s a bit arbitrary and trite to say that something is “the best” and compare it side-by-side with things that may be completely different; often the only common denominator amongst the albums on these lists are that they contain music, period.

That being said, I actually enjoy skimming through the majority of them; I always “discover” a record I missed in the previous months, maybe two or three, maybe more.  It’s impossible to hear everything, after all, so it stands to reason that if you trust the source of the list then the list might reward you.

As for me, I often make my own list (usually before reading others) and I base it only on one thing – what albums resonated with me most?  It’s less about what I deem “best” and what was most meaningful or provocative or simply played over and over and over again without me really tiring of it.  Albums I can go back to next year or the year after and say – “YES, that was my 2012”.  The following records go beyond those prerequisites, and are ones that I hope will both prove to be timeless and yet also will transport me back to this time in my life.
AFDirtyProjectorsDirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
In the past I’ve been annoyed by Dave Longstreth’s maniacal attention to detail and perfection, even as much as I loved many of his records.  Part of the reason for this is that I feel like he’s bragging with every turn, saying, “Look at me!  Look at my genius!  Look what I can do!” and in a way it’s also that his headiness around composing and inspiration is almost too daunting.  But Dirty Projectors have worn me down with their undeniable originality and lush arrangements and impossibly gorgeous female vocal virtuosity.  Whereas the tracks on 2009’s equally brilliant Bitte Orca meandered and shifted arrangements abruptly, some of Swing Lo Magellan’s magic lies in the actual catchiness and accessibility of these tracks.  They are a little less mathematical and so slightly more vivid.  Because the album eschews theme in favor of Longstreth’s personal stories and feelings, it resonates in ways that past albums haven’t approached, from a completely different angle.  Plus, the first time I listened to this record I was in a blanket fort.
AFGodspeedGodspeed You! Black Emperor – ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
The exclamation point, usually appearing after an interjection or strong declarative statement, is used in grammar to indicate strong feelings or high volume.  Never, then, has such rampant use of the punctuation mark been so appropriate than in the release of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s fourth studio album and its first in ten years.  The core members of the revolving collective reunited to tour in 2010 after a seven year hiatus, so it’s appropriate that the release contains two reworked versions of unreleased songs that saw a lot of live play.  In every towering movement, GY!BE proves that they haven’t lost that which makes their music essential – the droning, see-sawing build-ups to explosive orchestration, anarchistic echoes in both sonic spirit and whatever sparse voices can be heard around the din, an intense sense of mood and purpose.  Godspeed is a band that means a lot to many, and it might have been easy to take advantage of that and throw together something trite that didn’t add much to a dialogue that had ended in ellipses in 2003.  But ‘Allelujah! feels entirely right in every way, as though it was made alongside the band’s previous records.  It cements Godspeed as the singular purveyor of such darkly cathartic and moving pieces.  And I’m pleased to say that the live show holds up, too – it had me crying actual tears more than once.  Strong feelings and high volume, indeed.
AFGrizzly-Bear-ShieldsGrizzly Bear – Shields
Listening to Shields had a peculiar effect on me.  It was like seeing someone for the first time in a long a time that I used to date when we were both very young, and realizing that they’d grown up.  And knowing that it hadn’t happened suddenly, but that the person’s absence from my life had made it seem that way, and wondering if I’d grown up, too.  Horn of Plenty and Yellow House may represent the Grizzly Bear I fell in love with, and Veckatimest represents a period when the band meant less to me, when I fell out of touch with what they were doing.  But Shields has an incredible power behind it, one that I recognize and respect and receive with a knowing warmth.  It manages majesty while showing restraint.  It’s measured and beautiful in an almost mournful way that reins in the poppier tones on tracks like “Gun-Shy” “A Simple Answer” and “Yet Again”.  After a controversial article in New York Magazine used Grizzly Bear as an example of the impossible task indie bands face at making a living doing what they love, Shields proves that there’s something to be said for just making art the way you think is best, regardless of what success it brings.
afkillforloveChromatics – Kill For Love
It was a banner year for Johnny Jewel.   The songs featured in last year’s indie blockbuster Drive helped bring his work to a wider audience and set the stage for what would become the opus that is Kill For Love.  First came the tour-de-force Symmetry, an ambitious “electro-noir” faux soundtrack project released with Nat Walker.  The thirty-seven tracks on that album, which featured collaborations with Ruth Radelet, were in a way a precursor to the studied moods and dark nuances that persist on Kill For Love, particularly in its instrumental tracks.  But those tracks act as tendons, both vulnerable and powerful, for the real muscle – like “At Your Door” “Lady” and “A Matter Of Time” in which Radelet’s haunting, detached desperation are both frightening and sexy at once.  And then, of course, there’s the glittering, anthemic title track – nearly four minutes of ecstatic synths and lyrics like “I drank the water and I felt alright, I took a pill almost every night, In my mind I was waiting for change while the world just stayed the same”. It would practically hold up in a courtroom if, in fact you did kill someone in the name of love.
AFarielpinkAriel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes
Lo-fi recording savant Ariel Pink has been working at making a name for himself for almost a decade, releasing a handful records on Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks imprint.  But in 2010, backed by 4AD and with high-quality studio recording at his disposal, Pink released Before Today and the world finally took notice.  Previously renowned for his slipshod home-recording techniques, odd sense of humor and quirky compositions, Before Today signified to Pink’s audience that he was first and foremost a songwriter with a knack for thinking outside the box.  Pink’s most recent release, Mature Themes, offers a convergence of these two realities; bizarro arrangements, sound effects and subject matter abound, but are anchored by authentic psychedelic flair.  The record’s underlying ideas about sexuality seem ‘mature’ by any censor’s standard but are here addressed with biting irony, approached the way a twelve-year-old boy might make a joke about, well… schnitzel.  That’s the genius of Ariel Pink – one is never sure whether he’s providing valuable social commentary or just poking fun at the fact that he’s in a position to do so.  He sings “I’m just a rock n’ roller from Beverly Hills” and that is, perhaps, the only way to describe the enigma of his work in any succinct manner.  But Pink never forgets to throw props to the acts that inspired the creation of this record and everything that came before it, having brought attention to “father of home recording” R. Stevie Moore through his own enthusiasm for Moore’s work, and here championing brothers Donnie and Joe Emerson, whose transcendent lovesong “Baby” Pink covers in collaboration with Dam-Funk to close out the record.
AFhtdwHow To Dress Well – Total Loss
Tom Krell’s first proper record under the moniker How To Dress Well is a sprawling but sparse meditation on human relationships, namely on the ways that they can support us or disappoint us.  There are two elements at work that make Krell’s work so remarkable.  First, there’s Krell’s heartbreaking falsetto and the passions inherent in his pushing it to its most yearning extremes, helped by his earnest lyrics.  And then, of course, there’s the production – the hue and texture of the music that provides the backdrop for those heart-rending vocals.  Whether Krell is letting thunderous white noise roll over ethereal R&B hooks, distorting distantly plucked harp, utilizing grandiose samples, or melding soaring strings and churning beats, he does it all with grace and clarity.  The static and crackle that coated 2010’s Love Remains have melted away, and though there’s plenty of HTDW’s trademark reverb on this record, Total Loss as a whole feels more direct and even beautiful for it, sparing none of the atmosphere.  Krell has managed to essentialize what it is that makes his music so moving and with Total Loss has found a way to distill and perfect it in this gem of a release.
AFGOATGoat – World Music
Labeling something “World Music” is kind of a bizarre practice; after all, the entirety of music is composed on planet Earth – at least, as far as we know.  Goat, for instance, are apparently from a tiny village in Sweden founded by a voodoo-practicing occultist and populated by past incarnations of the band currently touring being this, the first album the band has ever recorded.  It contains the kind outrageous and well-traveled psychedelica that actually makes joining a cult, or a commune, or a collective of mysterious musicians, or whatever, seem like a good idea.  The members pointedly keep their identities shadowy, part a comment on the fleeting nature of celebrity in modern society but also as a means of forcing focus on the music itself, though it would be hard to ignore the joyous intensity and effortless virtuosity that infuses every track even if you knew who was playing.  The anonymous female vocalist on these jams is what sends them over the edge; in an era where wispy or witch-like feminine affectation is rampant, the songstress in Goat offers urgent chants, wailing until her voice breaks, her singing sometimes frenzied, sometimes devotional, sometimes both.  Yes, there are more than a few nods to goat worship, but there are almost as many to disco.  At its core, World Music is about carefree hedonism, about the act of devouring disparate influences and letting them wash over the senses, about auditory transcendence and the trances it induces.
AFmerchandiseMerchandise – Children Of Desire
There are two things that stopped this release from catapulting to the top of the list.  First, it’s technically not a full-length record, although as EPs go it definitely plays longer than most.  Second and more importantly, Merchandise let me down with their lifeless (read: drummer-less) live sets I saw this year.  But I’m hoping that they’ll pull it together and blow my socks off eventually, which shouldn’t be very hard since these songs have indelibly etched their mark on my heart.  The earnest crooning of Carson Cox has drawn comparisons to Morrissey – not much of a leap, especially when he’s singing the lines “Oh I fell in love again.  You know, the kind that’s like quicksand.  I guess I didn’t understand.  I just like to lose my head”.  He’s also got a bit of that sardonic sneer that Moz is known for, most evident during “In Nightmare Room” with its caustic guitar and repeated line “I kiss your mouth and your face just disappears”.  But Merchandise don’t simply mimic influences; the sound at which they’ve arrived is completely contemporary and difficult to categorize.  The most telling lyric is the opening line of “Become What You Are” an elegant kiss-off to inauthentic appropriation that evolves over the course of ten minutes from pop gem to kinetic, disorderly jangle.  Cox sings “Now the music’s started, I realized it was all a lie -the guitars were ringing out last year’s punk”  and a moment later, flippantly waves it all away: “It don’t really matter what I say. You’re just gonna twist it anyway. Did you even listen to my words? You just like to memorize the chorus”.  They’re a band wholly committed to the integrity of becoming, of shucking off old skins and processing the experience.
AFbat-for-lashes-the-haunted-manBat For Lashes – The Haunted Man
Natasha Khan becomes, with each album she releases, more and more essential to music at large, and with The Haunted Man she proves it song for song, from spectral lead single “Laura” to the radiating all-male choir on the album’s title track.  Khan suffered intense writer’s block at the onset of writing the album, calling on Radiohead’s Thom Yorke for advice, taking dance classes, and finally finding inspiration in life drawing and movies.  As a result, the album is infused with a reserved theatricality that’s more finely grained and intensely focused than much of her previous work.  Khan’s voice rises and glides powerfully over her arrangements, which even at their most orchestral remain concise and unfettered by extravagant ornamentation.  The power and restraint that play out on this album edge it out over those of her contemporaries and solidify her spot in a canon of greats, heir to a particular throne inhabited by such enigmatic women as PJ Harvey, Kate Bush and Bjork.
AFFlying-Lotus-Until-the-Quiet-Comes-e1342620571552Flying Lotus – Until The Quiet Comes
Though many predicted that the end of the world would coincide with the end of the Mayan calendar, as it turned out December 21st, 2012 was just an ordinary day.  But if the apocalypse had come, there would be no more fitting soundtrack than the work of Steven Ellison, otherwise known as Flying Lotus.  Appropriately dark and dream-like, Ellison here eschews the density that made 2010’s Cosmogramma such a complex listen, revisiting free jazz techniques and traditional African rhythms.  As the album progresses, a sense of journey unfolds, tied together by live bass from collaborator Thundercat.  Each track is infused with a sort of jittery calm, fluttering and lilting and filled with epiphany.  Guest vocals from the likes of Erykah Badu and Thom Yorke are treated as no more than additional instrumentation; Ellison is possessed with a sense of purpose and ownership to the music he’s carefully constructed.  In these tones, one can see whole worlds crumble.  It’s not unlike an out-of-body experience, really, one in which to listen is to drift outside oneself.  Ellison has proven that he is a serious producer, interested in growing and exploring subtle musical shifts rather than cashing in on one particular sound and driving it into the ground.  Until The Quiet Comes provides examples of the loudest kind of quiet one can experience, unfolding as beautifully and austerely as anything Flying Lotus has ever released.

That rounds out my top ten for the year, but there were a handful of others that stuck with me as well.  Below find some runners up with links to AudioFemme coverage from throughout the year!
Phédre – Phédre
Purity Ring – Shrines
Swans – The Seer
Death Grips – The Money Store
Mac DeMarco – Rock N Roll Nightclub/2
Liars – WIXIW
Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
Peaking Lights – Lucifer
Frankie Rose – Interstellar
Holy Other – Held


Why You Should Always Go To A “Secret” Show

Last minute, some friends and I decided to grab tickets to Ariel Pink’s Webster Hall show.  TEEN was opening and I hadn’t seen Ariel Pink in roughly two years, the last time being at Irving Plaza when I was going through some major melodrama that kind of ruined the whole thing for me.  So despite the hefty ticket price and less than ideal venue, I logged on to Ticketmaster, rolled my eyes at the ‘service’ surcharges, and was just about to click on “Submit Order” when I heard a familiar gchat ding.  My roommate was informing me that Holy Other had announced a secret show at 285 Kent via a Twitter message that had already disappeared.  All that remained was the following cryptic tweet from the venue:

Todd P’s reply tweets seemed to confirm that it would all go down after Ariel Pink finished the Webster show.  Holy Other was opening for Amon Tobin at Hammerstein, so that also seemed to make sense.  285’s facebook dangled a 3am set time like a carrot on a stick.  The matter was discussed with friends; it simply made more sense to skip Webster on the chance that Ariel would play later, cheaper, and in a rad venue instead of a lame one.

My brain was buzzing while I excitedly coordinated a new game plan for the evening.  Sure, I’d been excited to see TEEN, but had no doubt they’d play a CMJ showcase somewhere.  Holy Other was a more than suitable consolation prize.  And I was curious about R. Stevie Moore’s set as well.  But something about the prospect of seeing Ariel Pink at 285 seemed so epic, even though it was nothing if not the scaled-back nature of this alternative venue that made it that much more appealing.  There was something else at work here – the rumors, the hush, the knowing wink (or in this case, knowing retweets).  The magic of the ‘secret’ show.

What is it that makes a secret show feel so magical?  By its nature, even indulging the rumors means you are part of a club that is “in-the-know” and from there you have two options: play the part of the cool skeptic, or go all in on the chance that whatever happens might be spectacular.  It’s not like buying a ticket for a bill announced well in advance; while the anticipation might be just as acute there is the added glamour of uncertainty.  The venue could be jam-packed!  The ensuing show could be mayhem!  It might not even happen until the wee morning hours!  There could be insane special guests!  Suddenly, I was starring in a saga that had yet to unfold, knowing that if any one of these grandiose scenarios came to fruition, there were major bragging rights to be had.

After all, it was only about a month ago that Pictureplane and Grimes infamously took over 285, aided by surprise appearances from araabMuzik and A$AP Rocky.  I had been at that show; I got tickets before they sold out without thinking about the fact that I was supposed to work that evening, but it ended up taking place much later than expected so I just went afterward.  I’d had some friends in town that weekend so by the Sunday evening on which the show took place, I was exhausted, ready to keel over.  I was quite enjoying Arca’s DJ set but also feeling impatient and super-annoyed by the underaged seapunks populating the crowd.  Pictureplane didn’t go on until after midnight, as though enacting some backwards Cinderella clause.  I was simply too worn out to stick around for Grimes and her gaggle of buzzy artists, but the next day I admittedly kicked myself for not sticking it out a little longer.  A very well-known ‘journalist’ infamous for his over-use of superlatives tweeted: “Seems clear @285Kent will one day be regarded as a legendary NY scene.  Easily the wildest + most creative I’ve witnessed in my 5 years here.”

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Grimes DJs 285 Kent. Photographed by Erez Avissar, photo courtesy of Pitchfork.

And it is kind of true.  If there’s a venue in Brooklyn that’s really taking the reins as far as booking avant-garde artists and quirky parties, it’s 285.  While it’s no doubt benefited from its proximity to neighborhood DIY stalwarts Glasslands and Death By Audio, it has also had to set itself apart from these institutions.  It does so by catering to subcultures so specific to an ever-fleeting moment that, while the general populous tries to come up with a searing punchline to describe it, the nature of the ‘scene’ has already morphed into something else as explosive and as vibrant.  As with any scene there are downsides and caveats, but boredom isn’t in the vocabulary.

So when a place like this announces a secret anything, be there with bells on.  These aren’t just stories to tell your grandkids, these are stories that will make your relatives believe you are starting to go senile, because what you’ve described seems so fantastical.  No, you’ll insist: these are things that happened.  To me.  And they will either commit you to a geriatric care facility right then and there, or their shining eyes will widen and they will beg you to regale them with more tales from your debaucherous twenties.  You’ll play them a Grimes record, they will make strange faces.

Last Friday wasn’t quite so legendary as I’d hoped it would be, but Holy Other played an absolutely killer set.  His features were totally obscured by fog-machine sputter and pitch black lighting save for a mesmerizing laser projector cutting through the darkness.  Now, don’t go thinking I’m some stoner who could spend hours in Spencer gifts staring goggle-eyed at lava lamps and blacklight posters, but this laser thing was incredible.  It had a presence, like you could reach out and touch it, and it made geometric shapes and waves in myriad colors.  When I was living in Ohio, we had a regular karaoke spot and the DJ, Dave Castro, was the main reason behind our repeat attendance.  From time to time he’d have contests and give away this DVD he’d made for cats.  It was literally called Cat DVD and it was looped footage of goldfish swimming around or birds hopping through a forest or… that’s right, lasers.  The idea was that when you had to leave your cat at home alone, you could put on the DVD and then instead of napping the whole day away it would watch and be stimulated.  It was also really good for backgrounds at parties – much better than a lava lamp and much less likely to short out and cause a fatal blaze.  Watching Holy Other and his magical laser box was like getting sucked into Cat DVD in the best way I can describe.  When I talked about the show with friends afterward, the laser was the focus of conversation.  We wondered where we could get one, then decided that you had to know a wizard or a unicorn who could hook you up with it.

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Holy Other’s latest album Held makes good on all the promises of his early demos, singles and EPs.  Right at home on label Triangle Records, Holy Other is often associated with witch house, but he’s a front runner and a creator within that genre, not an imitator or piggy-backer.  He invented the sound that would define that movement, in all its sinister glory – skeletal beats marred by thumping bass, syrupy samples, seemingly random bleeps which emerge after repeated listens into blissful sonic fractals.  It’s hard not to be moved even during a subway ride with headphones over the ears or via computer speakers while you’re supposed to be casually checking email.  But with the volume up as loud as eardrums can handle, letting every pulse wash over you, the experience is truly one of holiness.

His set was plenty satisfying, but we had to know if Ariel Pink would show up so we stuck around, breathless from the experience.  What we got instead was bizarro pop Ariel Pink protege Geneva Jacuzzi, whose live performance I was surprised to learn just consists of her leaping barefoot around the stage in questionable attire while she howls over iPod tracks.  Since it was by that time close to 3AM if not well past it, and because grilled cheese from Normaan’s Kil was calling my name ever so faintly, my friend and I reluctantly left.  The reluctance was mostly mine and mostly only a byproduct of that uncertainty still reverberating through my psyche – what if Ariel Pink did show and I missed it?

While we waited for our cheeses (Solona + Vernice for LIFE!) I checked twitter for any news, mostly to no avail.  Finally someone posted an Instagram of a blurry, nearly obscured R. Stevie Moore backed by a band which may or may not have been Bodyguard and may or may not have included Ariel Pink, but there was no definitive account of who was actually onstage.  The person who posted the picture said they stayed at the venue until six in the morning.

In the end, the takeaway is this: the experience as a whole was totally worth it.  If I’d really wanted to see Ariel Pink I could’ve gone to Webster Hall, and for that matter I’m sure I’ll have another opportunity to bask in his weirdness.  In return for giving the promoters the benefit of the doubt, I was witness to an absolutely majestic Holy Other performance that I’m sure would have been nowhere near as intimate or haunting at Hammerstein.  It’s a great reminder that there is only one moment, and it’s the one you’re in.  You’re only a sucker if you stay home.